Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?

One person suggested:

The first answer is, this already happens. It is a trifle bit harder to track now that RePORTER doesn't seem to have quite as much historical data as the old CRISP system did. And there is no way to specifically search out changes in PI that I am aware of (i.e., it doesn't have some sort of code in the NIH database as does a change in institution or funding IC). But if you keep your eyes out and click on the "History" tab of grant records over at RePORTER, you can occasionally see a younger PI taking over a grant from an older PI. Often this is at the point of a competitive renewal cycle but occasionally (and smarter) the plan will be to put the younger person on as PI in the last 2 years of an awarded interval.

This comes into play frequently, in my experience, when you are talking about BigMech awards, particularly Centers. These are larger programs of research that frequently undergo transitions in the participating component/project PIs and even in the Center Director slot. In fact, we've just come through a round of about 5-8 years in which some Centers in which I have interest (and of which I have knowledge because of peer scientists within them) have been hit with a review mantra: "What are your plans for transitioning to younger scientists?". In several cases I can point to, the Centers have accomplished this feat. The long-standing component heads and even the Center Directors in some cases, have changed from the Older Guard to younger participants. Young Guns and Mid Guns. One, at the least, is on the third generation, the way I calculate it.

In some of these situations there is a smooth exit path for the older investigators. Perhaps they slide down to co-PI or even just "Investigator" on a component. Maybe they have a role on the Administration core or something. Oversee the "Developmental Core".

This appears to be the suggestion of the second Tweet here- as I said, it already exists.

The second answer is, hell no, this leads to stagnation of the science.

And that is really the question for the day. Should we be seeking to continue sustained research programs beyond the natural career life of a given PI? Or is this inherently a bad idea to keep supporting clones of successful PIs? Yes, I realize that we can all argue from anecdote on each side- let's try to avoid this. Is it generally good for the NIH to encourage or discourage such practices?

Are Centers and Program Projects likely to be special in this regard? Should continual PI transition be for Ps and not for Rs?

Are we better, overall, if we just leave it up to new-penny proposals of new projects at different Universities? Should R ...-26s simply go away into the good night?

13 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Interesting that succession/ transition is encouraged with the BigMech awards (presumably not so much with standard RO1's). Is that because the Institutions/reviewers are more concerned about viability of large scale/core grants or simply that those programs are expected to have longevity (or are too big to fail)?

    I personally don't think individual grants should be transitioned to other PIs but I wonder whether BigMech awards artificially support labs that should be winding down.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I get the feeling that longevity is expected by Program and the panels that review the BigMech competitive renewals. My understanding is that many of the reviewers of Centers are themselves directors of BigMechs- consistent with the general prescription that reviewers should have held the type of grant being reviewed. You can see the conflict of interest gets more acute when there's a smaller and smaller number of qualified scratch my back and I'll scratch yours....

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Could this be something used for a retiring PI's favorite scientist who runs a core lab for the retiring PI? If so, I see a "favorite" scientist who was unable to gain independence under the mentorship of the aging PI continuing to "run" the core in name only, while the aging PI acts like the Wizard of Oz and continues to dominate the actual running of the core. I don't see the "favorite" truly becoming independent in such a situation, but maybe this is OK for "favorites" whose expiration dates to show true independence have long since expired.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ummm yes?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    So, what happens when the PI, who's running the show behind the scenes, dies? Would the "favorite" be successful at running the show? I don't think this works for everyone. I know too many core lab "managers" who would essentially be totally incapable of running the show for realz. They can't write, just a set of hands. Harsh, but true.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Oh, and the few core lab managers I know for whom this wouldn't work can't think independently or really manage people, either. No originality or business skills, just glorified technicians who do what they're told. Again, sorry if I sound harsh, but it's true. I really can't see such individuals successfully writing grants to continue support of a core.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I don't think it should be the default, but if it's a productive research program and there's a capable scientist in the group, why not hand it off? I hear so many horror stories about how conservative review panels are -- would this be any worse?

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Lady Scientist speaks The Truth. Finger snaps for her.

  • drugmonkey says:

    LS: I suspect they go down in flames when they have to write a competing grant on their own. (I've seen it happen)

  • E rook says:

    In any other context, succession planning for a business would be expected / encouraged. I don't even see why this is an issue if the mission of the lab continues to be worthwhile and the research will be high quality, wtf difference does it make who's on top of the org chart?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Because NIH's system is explicitly project-based and not program-based, perhaps?

  • E rook says:

    Fair enough. But the question was "should," not a quiz on "what" it is. Is there any good reason that project based is better than program based (or a mix thereof)? Is the goal to remain pure to the system as it is? I see pros and cons for both. But succession planning makes sense. What PI wants to see the ship they built sunk at the end of the day? Maybe some do and some don't.

  • drugmonkey says:


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